Ask, Don’t Tell

Want a sure-fire method for improving your exchanges with others? Stop telling them what you think and start asking questions.

An effective negotiation—or any decent conversation—is a dialogue. That involves reaching outside of your mental box and connecting your thoughts to other party’s.

Declarative statements about your opinions, ideas or desires, on the other hand, are merely a description of the contents of your personal mental box—useful for providing information, perhaps, but not for reaching an understanding with the other party. In fact declarative statements are often so laden with presumptions that they actually inhibit communication.

If person A says to person B, “I think we should do it this way,” the communication flow ends there. B now knows what A thinks. No response was asked for or is necessary and B can remain disengaged.  If, on the other hand, A asks, “What if we were to do it this way?” B feels invited in and a dialogue begins.

If A says to B, “You should do X,” B feels not so much disengaged as resistant—especially if A has no rightful authority over B. B’s mind is likely whirring with annoyance, “Excuse me! What do you know about my situation, my goals, my restrictions, or my concerns?” The walls on each party’s mental box grow so thick that no communication can get through. A could have had a much more positive effect by asking, “Have you considered doing  X?” then following up on B’s answer with more questions to get a thorough understanding of the constraints and come up with ways to surmount them.

In short, if you want to increase your influence, learn to phrase your statements as questions. If you just want to tell people what’s on your mind, write a blog. :)

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